NPR forgets about zoning.
Submitted by murph on 4 July 2007 - 9:51am. michigan | radio | urban planning
Last night's installment of the Summer Documentary Series on Michigan Radio was on "The Sprawling of America", produced by the Great Lakes Radio Consortium's The Environment Report. I was glad to see them focus on the topic, until they unquestioningly repeated the fallacy that density - revitalizing city centers and urban neighborhoods - is a violation of property rights. The popular idea that sprawl is the product of a free market, "What People Want", is probably the single biggest mistake preventing us from either effectively addressing sprawl or effectively revitalizing our cities.
Dear Michigan Radio and The Environment Report,
While I was excited to find that Tuesday night's Summer Documentary was on city planning and sprawl, I was disappointed to see you fall into one of the standard traps around the subject. Around 20 minutes into the show, you discuss the perceived "clash" between planners' and environmentalists' desire to reduce sprawl on the one hand and property rights and "the market" on the other hand. Assuming that sprawl is a product of a free market is not only false, but completely counterproductive.
Sprawl is not the result of the free market, but rather a product of heavy regulation and "social engineering". As you note elsewhere in the documentary, billions of dollars of subsidy are pumped into roads and other infrastructure to support farflung development, which hardly sounds like a "free market". Additionally, the federal government has long subsidized suburban homeowners: through Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Authority mortgages, and less directly through income tax deductions for mortgage interest, the government has spent the last half-century paying people to move out of the cities and into sprawl.
Finally, and most significantly, sprawl development is not only encouraged but forced by zoning ordinances. You quote Don Shoup on the fact that local ordinances almost always require developers to provide more parking than they would choose to provide in absence of regulation, but you fail to follow that line of thought. In addition to parking, zoning ordinances throughout America require minimum lot sizes and minimum setbacks from the lot line to buildings, ensuring that new development takes up more land, and strictly prevents multiple-family housing from being constructed in most areas. Government regulations force most Americans to live in detached houses on large lots in unwalkable areas, regardless of what they want - sprawl is not a product of the free market at work, but the result of 60 years of official belief that sprawling subdivisions are "healthier" and "more stable" than denser urban neighborhoods.
I recommend that you look into "Zoned Out", a recent book by Professor Jonathan Levine, the chair of the University of Michigan's Urban and Regional Planning program. Levine is one of the few planners or academics pointing out that sprawl is the product of regulation, and that reducing sprawl requires reducing regulation. Far from "forcing people into cities", we need to stop forcing them out of cities. By loosening zoning regulations to permit greater density, we can fight sprawl by allowing people more choices, more freedom to live in denser neighborhoods and downtowns.
I enjoy the Summer Documentary Series, but, trained as an urban planner, I can't help but cringe at the statement that we need to find a balance between "pursuing the good life in the 'burbs," and revitalizing city centers. For many Americans, there is no such conflict - the good life is in the city centers.
Yes, part of it's probably just loyalty to my grad school adviser, but I do feel lucky to have studied under one of the few people who is making arguments in the language of choice, freedom, and property rights. They are arguments most people have never heard, and often effective at getting the attention of people who dismiss questions of environment or social equity out of hand.